THE ABUSE OF POSSESSION: ‘After Sappho’ by Selby Wynn Schwartz

By Isabel Stainsby

When I was halfway through reading this book, I picked up a pencil and started to underline the most gorgeous phrases, sentences, passages. Then I went back to the start and re-read, pencil in hand. There is barely a page with no underlining. I also began to scribble on the pages as I spotted themes: women’s rights. Education. A Doll’s House. Art. Rape. Names. Grammar. Men. (And at least once, men, then the words “facepalm emoji” in angle brackets.) It is perhaps a good thing that I get to keep my review copy.

The entire book is bursting at the seams with astonishingly beautiful writing:

A kletic poem is a calling, both a hymn and a plea. It bends in obeisance to the divine, ever dappled and shining, and at the same time it calls out to ask, When will you arrive? Why is your radiance distant from my eyes? You drop through the branches when I sleep at the roots. You pour yourself out like the light of an afternoon and yet somewhere you linger, outside the day1.

Longlisted for the Booker, and winner of Book of the Year from the Guardian, Independent, New Statesman and the BBC, After Sappho comes laden with expectations before you can even read the first page. Following the lives of women, some famous, some not so famous, some you will never have heard of, who love other women and fight for their rights to love, self-determination, education, control of their own bodies and the right to create art, their own art, as they wish.

Some wrote poetry, some painted, some acted, some were musicians. None of them saw why they should be constrained by the ideas of the men in their fields. These women, who did not all meet each other, had so much more in common than their sexuality, even than their reverence for Sappho.

The book opens with the words: “The first thing we did was change our names. We were going to be Sappho.”2 And many of them did change their names. The first woman we meet, in 1885, was baptised Cordula Poletti, but changed her name in 1899 to Lina, and it was Lina, not Cordula, who read and became Sappho; what’s more, Lina often changed her name when she desired someone: “ardent, mysterious letters would arrive to you from whoever Lina was [. . .]”3

Rina Faccio became Nira, then Reseda, then Sibilla Aleramo. Pauline Tarn “violently… extinguished her name” to become Renée (and sometimes René) Vivien. Margaret Honeywell took the name William Seymour, lived with a wife and fooled everyone until accused of stealing meat from a butcher’s shop.

On one occasion, both writer and work had to change their names before the work could be published: Virginia Stephen’s Melymbrosia appeared eight years after it was written, as The Voyage Out, by Virginia Woolf. Actress Eleonora Druse, name unchanged but sometimes shortened, inhabited her characters so completely that she became them:

Eleonora Druse never called a play by its title. To her, a play was the woman she would be in it. As soon as rehearsals began, Eleonora condensed herself to make room for the woman who would come over her. She would pile up her hair, clot her own feelings into a side chamber of her heart: anything to make more space for her protagonist to possess. She would shorten her own name. Thus, on that wintry evening in 1891 at the Teatro Filodrammatici of Milano, she was Nora who was Nora in Nora4.

Sometimes a change of name means a change of identity; at others, it is much more about asserting one’s genuine identity, reclaiming one’s true self from whatever seeks to suppress it. Who were these women, who could they be, if not themselves? How many women around them, less educated, less bold, less unconventional, never got the chance to be truly themselves?

Names can change in other ways too. Grammar, and cases in particular, is another repeated motif. One (presumably) summer day, Natalie Barney and Eva Palmer “slipped off their dresses; naked all afternoon they apostrophised each other in the vocative,”5 the “case of calling on someone directly”.6 An unusual method of wooing, perhaps, that would not work on everyone, but that worked for these two (and might just work on me – please don’t try). Sappho may use the vocative of herself; those who would become her can use it, to and with each other.

For classical Greek poets, it is a rare thing to address oneself as another. In fact perhaps the only surviving instance is Sappho, who apostrophises herself in Fragment 133. She says her own name in the vocative…. But she does not exclaim herself. She does not lecture, incite, curse, implore or harangue her own person. Instead… she enquires…. Sappho, why?7

Much more attention, however, is focused, on the genitive case:

The genitive is a case of relations between nouns. Often the genitive is defined as possession, as if the only way one noun could be with another were to own it, greedily. But in fact there is also the genitive of remembering,8 where one noun is always thinking of another, refusing to forget her.

Thus, the genitive case becomes a metaphor for the relationships between these women; they do not own each other, as the men of the time owned their wives, but they remember each other, even after the actual relationship is over. The genitive of remembering is Sappho’s case,9 so of course her followers adopted it as theirs too.

Many other reviews of this lovely book have puzzled over what sort of book it is. Written, as befits a paean to Sappho and sapphists, in fragments, it is not quite a novel and not quite a history; it is, in fact, as difficult to categorise or classify as the protagonists themselves. In another grammatical oddity, the narrative voice uses the first-person plural, sweeping the reader along and including her, giddily, in the sapphists’ struggles, travels, affairs and triumphs (will I receive a letter from whoever Lina Poletti is now?).

As a result, the book reads more like a memoir than anything else. The genitive of remembering is the subject of all memoirs, though few express it in such terms, but here, I think, the optative is also relevant:

In ancient Greek, to utter a wish or a hope, there is the optative. The optative is a mood, almost a feeling. It hovers in the air just outside of time or subject, wistful in colour, its edges slightly tinged with foreboding. If only, if only, would that it were so, the optative pleads, Let it be so, may it somehow come to pass! We were well acquainted with the optative mood, in those days we used it often with each other. We wavered between invoking our desires aloud and shyly hoping that they would simply happen to us, like weather.10

If there can be such a thing as an optative memoir, After Sappho, suffused with hope and wistfulness, is it. But still, let us note, with the appropriately named Miss Case, the “very rare sort of genitive in the third line”11 and deplore with her the “overuse of the genitive of possession”.12

About our contributor

Isabel Stainsby is a translator (literary/commercial) and enthusiast for all things language. She studied languages, literature and linguistics, and translates into English from Czech, Slovak, German and occasionally French. Her literary
translations range from science fiction to academic texts and her work has
appeared in the Continental Literary Magazine and Books from Slovakia. Isabel
has lived in Germany, the Czech Republic and Russia, but is now settled Glasgow
with her husband and a very spoiled greyhound. Her books-to-be-read list is
likely to outlive her, and joining the Glasgow Review of Books has not helped
this. When not translating or reading, she can usually be found baking or
practising yoga.

  1. Page 18. ↩︎
  2. Page 11. ↩︎
  3. Page 72 ↩︎
  4. Page 78 ↩︎
  5. Page 91 ↩︎
  6. Page 54 ↩︎
  7. Ibid, original italics. ↩︎
  8. Page 16, emphasis added. ↩︎
  9. Page 18. ↩︎
  10. Page 96. ↩︎
  11. Page 55. ↩︎
  12. Ibid ↩︎

2 responses to “THE ABUSE OF POSSESSION: ‘After Sappho’ by Selby Wynn Schwartz”

  1. What a lovely review! How did I ever think of noun declension as dull? I will never view the genitive in the same light again.

    1. Hello Christine – thank you so much for these kind words, and for taking the time to post them. We’ll make sure Isable sees what you’ve said, and we’re sure she’ll be delighted also. Best, Team GRB.

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